KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY
— Any sunny summer Sunday in Kiev, a mile or two north-west of the arena which will be bouncing in Euro 2012 ecstasy tonight, is a very different stadium.
Hidden behind trees, bushes, overgrown grass verges and battered old railings, it’s easier to miss than find, down and around a couple of side streets encased with tenement apartment blocks.
On a bright summer morning it’s a sun trap. Fierce rays of heat reflect off a stone-red running track surrounding a football pitch defined by two white-painted goal frames. A small stand on the north side is lined with old benches. What little remains of the gray and cream paint is peeling off.
Above the benches, atop this same stand, is a small viewing platform; a sort of expanded band stand or bus stop.
This is a peaceful, even idyllic scene. A handful of tracksuited runners are trotting around the track. Some joggers, couples mainly, are circumnavigating the dirt track which surrounds pitch, track and stand. A glistening, oiled-up sunbather is lying, face-down, on one of those old benches.
Time after time
Back down on the track is a roller-skater: wearing shorts, his torso tanned, he’s obviously a summer Sunday veteran. He skates round and around. Time after time after time. Rhythmical, even graceful, apparently effortlessly.
Behind one goal frame is an old man, wearing only a pair of black briefs, performing a calisthenics routine probably beyond most men half his age. Balances, stretches, even handstands. All undertaken with a total lack of self-awareness. In a public but private world of his own. Another veteran of this little, hidden sun trap.
Some joggers step out, others step in. A young girl and her own mother play with a baby, camouflaged within the dappled shade of the trees at one end of the stadium.
Nothing grand about the place . . . except for the pillars and colonnaded entrance. Again, the paint is peeling. The steel letters which portray the name of the club are rusted and teetering at varying angles of insecurity.
They spell out a simple name: START.
For this antique, dilapidated little sun trap of a stadium was, in 1942, the venue of the so-called ‘Death Match.’
Kiev’s Nazi occupiers had organised a series of games between their own air force team and local club players. Subsequent Soviet propaganda told how the Kiev players were ordered not to win the one game but, out of patriotic pride, did precisely that; they were arrested in the dressing rooms after the match and executed by firing squad.
That was a lie. Four members of the team did die later during the war but not for winning a football match.
Fact and fiction
Only after the collapse of Soviet communism could the truth be told. The tale provided the germ of the idea – but only that – for the oddly iconic Hollywood film, Escape To Victory (even the stadium in the film is not Start but the old Ferencvaros ground, in Budapest).
The legend of the ‘Death Match,’ fiction as much as fact, falsehood as much as truth, is woven indelibly now into the proud history of Kiev.
That was 70 years ago, before the assorted joggers, skaters, sun-bathers and young mothers had been born . . . though not the old man performing his exercises, in a world of his own, behind the goal frame in the Start Stadium.
Any sunny summer Sunday in Kiev.
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